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Netanyahu should ignore Israeli partners who push to annex Palestinian territory

Benjamin Netanyahu
AP Photo/Ariel Schalit
Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in Jerusalem on June 30, 2022.

As the world watches Vladimir Putin brazenly annex chunks of eastern Ukraine, one politician in particular will be following the Russian leader’s moves with special interest. If some Israeli polls prove correct, Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu once again will form an Israeli government in the aftermath of that country’s Nov. 1 parliamentary elections. And that government may well press to annex parts of the West Bank.

Beginning in early 2019, then-Prime Minister Netanyahu began to contemplate annexing areas of the West Bank that were likely to form part of a Palestinian state; doing so certainly would have doomed any prospect of a two-state solution to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Over the course of much of the following year and a half, Netanyahu encountered resistance not only from European leaders — which he expected — but also from a key leader of one of his coalition partners, the Blue and White Party. The party’s leader, retired general Benny Gantz, not only was vice prime minister but also was scheduled to replace Netanyahu under a rotation deal to which the two men had agreed when they formed a government in April 2020. 

Moreover, Netanyahu had to cope with both an ongoing corruption investigation that threatened to result in his imprisonment, as well as the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, when the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which long had less-than-clandestine ties with Israel, proposed formalizing relations if Netanyahu would drop his annexation plan, the Israeli leader promptly did so — and the 2020 Abraham Accords were the result.

Netanyahu did not discard his plan entirely, however. He claimed that he merely had “suspended” going forward with annexation at that time. Should he return to power, however, his coalition partners are unlikely to resist his taking steps to implement his plan. Indeed, two key leaders of those partners — Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionists, and Itamar Ben-Gvir, who leads the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party — will press him to move ahead quickly with annexation.

It is difficult to determine which of these two men is the more politically extreme. Smotrich has led fights to prevent Arab Israelis from acquiring property in Israel. His views can be summed up by his statement to an Arab Knesset member that “you are here by mistake; it’s a mistake that [David] Ben-Gurion didn’t finish the job and didn’t throw you out in 1948.” For his part, Ben-Gvir has the dubious honor of having been convicted eight times for a variety of crimes, including for providing support to an anti-Arab terrorist group.   

Smotrich and Ben-Gvir are both devotees of the late Meir Kahane, leader of the racist Kach Party that was banned from competing in Israel’s parliamentary elections. Kahane not only advocated for annexing the entire West Bank, he also supported “transferring” all Arabs out of Israel. It is therefore notable that, at Netanyahu’s urging, Smotrich and Ben-Gvir agreed to form a single list from the two parties they headed so that when combined, both parties would garner enough votes to ensure that they met the 3.25 percent requirement for Knesset representation and could join Netanyahu’s coalition. Moreover, Ben-Gvir is expected to hold a senior position in a Netanyahu government.

Given the urgings of these two men and their followers, Netanyahu is likely to revive his “suspended” annexation plans. Indeed, he may conclude that, whereas Vladimir Putin’s phony referendum and annexation of four Ukrainian regions may provoke more sanctions against Russia, Israel will not suffer the same consequences should he choose to follow Putin’s example and annex Palestinian territory.

He could not be more wrong. Nothing would do more to bolster the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel than annexing Palestinian territory. Moreover, it will be not only the Europeans who will condemn any annexation effort; nearly all members of the United Nations Security Council almost certainly will support a resolution to impose economic sanctions on Israel that could cripple her export-driven high-tech economy. In that regard, the Biden administration, together with congressional leaders from both parties, should make it clear to Netanyahu even before Nov. 1 that, should he pursue any serious annexation effort if he returns to power, Washington will abstain from, if not support, a resolution calling for UN sanctions, thereby guaranteeing its passage.

If Bibi Netanyahu wishes to consort with fascists in his government, that is his prerogative. But if he wishes to implement their extremist ideology, he should be told in no uncertain terms that doing so could be disastrous for the country he once again may lead.    

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags Benjamin Netanyahu Israeli elections West Bank annexation

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